When it comes to muscle tone, loveable Boris Johnson is no match for Vladimir Putin. During the summer, Vlad likes to whip off his top and showcase those bulging biceps and shiny pecs. (By happy coincidence, a photographer is always there to capture the moment.) Boris, in contrast, puts on his shorts to go running and looks like a milk pudding squeezed inside a colored condom. How very British.
It was a good friend of mine, an American as it happens, who, seeing me for the first time in a few months, put it to me bluntly: “Rob, you’re fat.”
And why does Boris need to flash his pasty flesh in this way? He must lose weight. As he readily admits, obesity is a big risk-factor for Covid-19 patients — the fatter you are, the more likely you’ll get it bad and recover slowly. Well, Boris is, ahem, pudgy, and boy, did he get it bad. He’s lost quite a bit since then, but has a way to go. His exact weight is a secret between him and his bathroom scales, but he must still be at least 225 pounds.
So, he joins the ranks of us middle-aged men trying to shed the kilos. And what a thankless task it is. For a start, the psychology is all wrong. A bit of us assumes we still look like we did in 1990 — slim, chiseled, and terribly handsome. (Shush, let me dream.) We simply haven’t come to terms with the ravages of time and those endless visits to the fridge, sometimes at 3 a.m. to hunt for a chunk of cheddar.
It creeps up on you, but, by 45, the male body has pretty much fallen apart. Man breasts and love handles are your lot in life. One or more of your joints will be giving you jip (both ankles in my case), and you’ll almost certainly have a wonky back, thinning hair, and at least two chins. “Jowly” is the adjective that most readily describes you.
Then one day, it dawns on you. You’re hopelessly out of shape. It was a good friend of mine, an American as it happens, who, seeing me for the first time in a few months, put it to me bluntly. “Rob, you’re fat,” he announced, looking me up and down with disgust.
It hit me like a slap across my jowly cheeks. I’d been in denial, but he was right. Between the ages of 22 and 44, I’d put on 45 pounds. Yes, I could kid myself that I “carried it well.” But the truth was inescapable. I was squeezing into my clothes, panting just climbing the stairs, and, shamefully, was rocking back and forth to get out of an armchair.
Cue a regime of exercise and healthy eating, with a much-needed reduction in booze intake. I became a keen follower of the 5:2 diet, so on two days of every week I consumed a maximum of 600 calories — little more than a salad and an apple. As I went to sleep at night my inner-Brit would come out, and I’d dream of fish and chips and pints of warm beer. But I resisted temptation, put an exercise bike in my office, and pounded away watching motivational videos about anything from appetite suppressant lollipops to colonic irrigation.
I became a complete bore, with the fervor of the newly converted, and couldn’t think about anything other than what the bathroom scales would tell me. Each pound lost was a celebration.
Before I knew it, I was losing two pounds a week. I’d developed momentum, and was running downhill with abandon. Keep going, I told myself. You mustn’t stop! Weeks and months went by, and those encouraging comments from friends (“Goodness, you’ve lost weight”) took on an edge of alarm: “You’re looking a bit gaunt. You sure you’re alright?”
But I ignored it all. Any weight loss is good weight loss, I convinced myself. I had all my clothes altered to fit my slim new frame, and saw more of my seamstress than I did my wife and kids. I took to heart the words of super-model Kate Moss that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” — which I found moving, insightful, and motivating, right up there with the great philosophies of Locke, Kant, and Stuart Mill. I went past the 170-pound mark, and carried straight on. More and more. Keep going!
Then it happened. My immunity system compromised, I got ill — influenza followed by double pneumonia, leading to ten days in hospital and a stern ticking off by my doctor, who told me I needed to eat more. I’d gone from overweight to skinny in 18 months, and nearly paid a heavy price.
These days, moderation is my watchword, and it’s what I wish for Boris, along with other middle-aged men who find their bodies getting all big, puffy, and malfunctioning.
Actually, I have every faith in Boris not to make my mistake. Surely, he’ll come out of this health kick smelling of roses (at least after a shower). He always does. Mud doesn’t stick to him, even when physical exercise involves him assaulting Germans. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at that old video of him tripping himself up then inadvertently rugby tackling an astonished opponent in a celebrity soccer match between England and Germany. It’s like a metaphor for Brexit. Career-ending for most, it just heightened his appeal, attracting four million hits and thousands of thrilled comments.
Perhaps that’s why all of us in the UK, even his bitterest opponents, found ourselves so alarmed at the news, back in April, that he was in intensive care with the dreaded virus. For 48 hours, it was touch and go. He’s so larger than life it was unimaginable that he could just fade away. Thank God he pulled through.
So, while we wish him well with his health kick, we beseech him not to overdo it. Steady as you go, Boris. We need you. And, take it from me that, whatever Kate Moss says, you really can have too much of a good diet.